Alone in the Woods
by Tony Noland
Melissa turned again, tape and ballpoint in one hand, notebook in the other.
"Hey, is someone there?" she called, louder this time. No response. "I have the landowner's permission to survey these trees. Hello?"
Silence. The woods were quiet and cool in the deep shade. She listened for a while, trying to figure out what had tipped her off that she was not alone in the woods. With one hand, she tucked some stray hairs behind her ear and cocked her head.
This far into the older growth, there wasn't even the hum of bugs. No deerfly, no blackfly, and few mosquitoes, nothing her industrial strength repellant couldn't handle. She adjusted her stance on the slope and called out again.
"I'm Melissa Hartwick, from the Forestry Department at Lake Superior State." She did not say Dr. Hartwick or Professor Hartwick; the people up here were touchy about snotty downstaters. "I'm doing a survey for the green winged bark borer. Hello? I'm happy to tell you all about it. Hello?"
Her voice resounded in the woods, not an echo, exactly, but more like the forest swallowed her words and spit them back to her.
With a sigh, she turned back to measuring the tree. She'd long since gotten over feeling foolish about calling out to unseen people in the woods. If there was no one there, then there was no one to hear her and it didn't matter. When there was someone, most of the time whoever it was came up to talk after they'd been found out. People weren't nearly as good at moving unnoticed through the woods as they thought they were. Sometimes they just moved away, continuing their hiking or poaching or moonshining, whatever brought them to the deep cover in the first place. It didn't matter to Melissa; she was only there for the trees.
Only once had she encountered someone who looked like he might like to take physical advantage of a woman alone in the forest. She drew his attention to the Smith & Wesson under her field vest and he'd cut the conversation short on his own. The gun was primarily insurance against wolves, black bear, and other critters, but when you're 5'3" and pretty, a handgun's not a bad thing to have just on general principles.
A hundred yards behind her and up the slope, some rocks shifted, thunking down against the rotted bole of a fallen trunk.
"All right, that does it," she said aloud, "whoever you are, you messed with the wrong gal." She made a show of stuffing her tape measure and other gear into her backpack and stomping forward toward where the sound had come from. Bluster and bluff worked with most wild animals, and with most people, too. Expecting her visitor to bolt at her approach, she grew apprehensive as she neared the spot. She snorted loudly and stamped in visible irritation as she circled around wide. At the spot, she saw the rocks, twenty years worth of lichen torn away where they'd banged against each other. But apart from the rocks, the dirt and what was left of the rotting tree... nothing.
She wasn't scared, not exactly. The woods were as much a home to her as anyplace else was. She knew the sounds and scents, the rhythms and behaviors in every kind of forest, from the buzzing heat of the resurgent scrub that came on after a clear cut to the pained solemnity of an isolated patch of old growth pine. The only reason these primordial old trees were here was that the hillside made them unprofitable to cut. She could go on for hours to her students about the microclimate effect of the rockslide soil, the time-eroded contours, the winds off the lake that twisted these trees into knotty, burly fantasies. These trees were worthless as timber, but they were as old as the world, older than the glaciers that had scraped the land clean for a hundred miles in every direction. Only this sheltered horseshoe valley had been spared, a quirk of geography splitting apart a million tons of ice to either side as it marched south and retreated north, again and again. And throughout, forced into dwarfism for ten thousand years by the cold, dry winds, these trees survived.
These ugly, misshapen brutes were strong and proud, ancient and beautiful, and she loved them. She rested her hand against the log and felt for the dead heart of the fallen giant.
Behind her, the bark of a tree split open and a creature leapt out, it's claws spread wide. Its shrieking cry made her turn and scramble backwards. With one powerful swipe, it knocked her into the air. She flew a dozen feet downslope, crashing onto loose soil of the forest floor. Her backpack was slashed through with four long, ragged gashes, and her materials spilled out. Papers, field guides, sample bags, GPS, all of it sent scattering onto the ground. She started to reach across to pull the Smith & Wesson, but her broken forearm sent white-hot jolts of pain upwards into her shoulder.
Scrambling backward, she drew the pistol with her left hand just as the creature gathered itself for another spring. She got off a single shot, but it was enough. The .45 slug tore through its face, blowing its head backward and twisting it in the air. The thing was dead before it hit the ground next to her. It bounced and skidded a few feet, then lay mostly still, limbs quivering with the energy of the dead.
She scooted back away from it. Panting, she clenched her teeth and willed herself not to throw up. After a time, she stood, cradling her broken arm. With the toe of her boot, she turned the thing over. Its face - what was left of it - was all teeth and gaping jaws. Thick, dark sap ran everywhere and the decayed bark in its mouth gave off a stench of fungal wet rot, of good heartwood gone bad. With her good arm, she wiped away the sweat on her forehead, then kicked the body, hard.
"Fucking tree vampires," she said. "I wish they'd never reintroduced these damned things."
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